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Early History and Tenets
Sikhism began with Guru Nanak (1469-1539), a member of a trading caste in
Punjab who seems to have been employed for some time as a government servant,
was married and had two sons, and at age forty-five became a religious teacher.
At the heart of his message was a philosophy of universal love, devotion to God,
and the equality of all men and women before God.
He set up congregations of
believers who ate together in free communal kitchens in an overt attempt to
break down caste boundaries based on food prohibitions. As a poet, musician, and
enlightened master, Nanak's reputation spread, and by the time he died he had
founded a new religion of "disciples" (shiksha or sikh) that followed
Nanak's son, Baba Sri Chand, founded the Udasi sect of celibate ascetics,
which continued in the 1990s. However, Nanak chose as his successor not his son
but Angad (1504-52), his chief disciple, to carry on the work as the second
guru. Thus began a lineage of teachers that lasted until 1708 and amounted to
ten gurus in the Sikh tradition, each of whom is viewed as an enlightened master
who propounded directly the word of God.
The third guru, Amar Das (1479-1574),
established missionary centers to spread the message and was so well respected
that the Mughal emperor Akbar visited him (see The Mughals, ch. 1). Amar Das
appointed his son-in-law Ram Das (1534-81) to succeed him, establishing a
hereditary succession for the position of guru. He also built a tank for water
at Amritsar in Punjab, which, after his death, became the holiest center of
By the late sixteenth century, the influence of the Sikh religion on Punjabi
society was coming to the notice of political authorities. The fifth guru, Arjun
Das (1563-1606), was executed in Lahore by the Mughal emperor Jahangir (r.
1605-27) for alleged complicity in a rebellion. In response, the next guru,
Hargobind (d. 1644), militarized and politicized his position and fought three
battles with Mughal forces.
Hargobind established a militant tradition of
resistance to persecution by the central government in Delhi that remains an
important motif in Sikh consciousness. Hargobind also established at Amritsar,
in front of the Golden Temple, the central shrine devoted to Sikhism, the Throne
of the Eternal God (Akal Takht) from which the guru dispensed justice and
administered the secular affairs of the community, clearly establishing the
tradition of a religious state that remains a major issue.
The ninth guru, Tegh
Bahadur (1621-75), because he refused Mughal emperor Aurangzeb's order to
convert to Islam, was brought to Delhi and beheaded on a site that later became
an important gurdwara (abode of the guru, a Sikh temple) on Chandni
Chauk, one of the old city's main thoroughfares.
These events led the tenth guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708), to transform the
Sikhs into a militant brotherhood dedicated to defense of their faith at all
times. He instituted a baptism ceremony involving the immersion of a sword in
sugared water that initiates Sikhs into the Khalsa (khalsa , from the
Persian term for "the king's own," often taken to mean army of the pure) of
The outward signs of this new order were the "Five Ks" to be
observed at all times: uncut hair (kesh ), a long knife
(kirpan ), a comb (kangha ), a steel bangle (kara ),
and a special kind of breeches not reaching below the knee (kachha ).
Male Sikhs took on the surname Singh (meaning lion), and women took the surname
Kaur (princess). All made vows to purify their personal behavior by avoiding
intoxicants, including alcohol and tobacco.
In modern India, male Sikhs who have
dedicated themselves to the Khalsa do not cut their beards and keep their long
hair tied up under turbans, preserving a distinctive personal appearance
recognized throughout the world.
Much of Guru Gobind Singh's later life was spent on the move, in guerrilla
campaigns against the Mughal Empire, which was entering the last days of its
effective authority under Aurangzeb (1658-1707).
After Gobind Singh's death, the
line of gurus ended, and their message continued through the Adi Granth
(Original Book), which dates from 1604 and later became known as the Guru
Granth Sahib (Holy Book of the Gurus). The Guru Granth Sahib is
revered as a continuation of the line of gurus and as the living word of God by
all Sikhs and stands at the heart of all ceremonies.
Most of the Sikh gurus were excellent musicians, who composed songs that
conveyed their message to the masses in the saints' own language, which combined
variants of Punjabi with Hindi and Braj and also contained Arabic and Persian
vocabulary. Written in Gurmukhi script, these songs are one of the main sources
of early Punjabi language and literature.
There are 5,894 hymns in all, arranged
according to the musical measure in which they are sung. An interesting feature
of this literature is that 937 songs and poems are by well-known bhakti
saints who were not members of the lineage of Sikh gurus, including the North
Indian saint Kabir and five Muslim devotees.
In the Guru Granth Sahib ,
God is called by all the Hindu names and by Allah as well. From its beginnings,
then, Sikhism was an inclusive faith that attempted to encompass and enrich
other Indian religious traditions.
The belief system propounded by the gurus has its origins in the philosophy
and devotions of Hinduism and Islam, but the formulation of Sikhism is unique.
God is the creator of the universe and is without qualities or differentiation
in himself. The universe (samsar ) is not sinful in its origin but is
covered with impurities; it is not suffering, but a transitory opportunity for
the soul to recognize its true nature and break the cycle of rebirth.
unregenerate person is dominated by self-interest and remains immersed in
illusion (maya ), leading to bad karma. Meanwhile, God desires that his
creatures escape and achieve enlightenment (nirvana) by recognizing his order in
the universe. He does this by manifesting his grace as a holy word, attainable
through recognition and recitation of God's holy name (nam ).
of the guru, who is the manifestation of God in the world, is to teach the means
for prayer through the Guru Granth Sahib and the community of
believers. The guru in this system, and by extension the Guru Granth
Sahib , are coexistent with the divine and play a decisive role in saving
Where the Guru Granth Sahib is present, that place becomes a
gurdwara . Many Sikh homes contain separate rooms or designated areas
where a copy of the book stands as the center of devotional ceremonies.
Throughout Punjab, or anywhere there is a substantial body of believers, there
are special shrines where the Guru Granth Sahib is displayed
permanently or is installed daily in a ceremonial manner. These public
gurdwaras are the centers of Sikh community life and the scene of
periodic assemblies for worship.
The typical assembly involves group singing
from the Guru Granth Sahib , led by distinguished believers or
professional singers attached to the shrine, distribution of holy food, and
perhaps a sermon delivered by the custodian of the shrine.
As for domestic and life-cycle rituals, well into the twentieth century many
Sikhs followed Hindu customs for birth, marriage, and death ceremonies,
including readings from Hindu scriptures and the employment of Brahmans as
Reform movements within the Sikh community have purged many of these
customs, substituting instead readings from the Guru Granth Sahib as
the focus for rituals and the employment of Sikh ritual specialists. At major
public events--weddings, funerals, or opening a new business--patrons may fund a
reading of the entire Guru Granth Sahib by special reciters.
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NOTE: The information regarding India Religions on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress country studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Indian religions information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about religions in India should be addressed to The Library of Congress.